Nearly 400,000 Texas children could lose health care coverage in late January unless Congress renews funding for the Children’s Health Insurance Program, a decades-old program that provides health care to millions of children across the country.

Texas officials have asked the federal government for $90 million to keep CHIP alive through February, but without that funding, letters could go out later this month from state officials alerting parents that their children’s benefits could be at risk.

Congress allowed the program to expire on Sept. 30, leaving Texas and other states with dwindling coffers. CHIP typically receives bipartisan support, but lawmakers have failed to agree in recent months on how to fund it.

“We’re closely monitoring congressional efforts to reauthorize the program and are hopeful that it will be extended prior to the exhaustion of our current allotment,” said Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman with the Texas Department of State Health Services. “Based on our conversations with (Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services) … we are confident that a redistribution of funds will happen.”

Calls to push Congress

Minnesota already ran out of money and is using state funds to keep the health plan running. Other states, including Oregon, are preparing to spend their own funds if Congress doesn’t act in the next few weeks.

The program, first approved by Congress in 1997 to provide coverage for families who earn too much to qualify for Medicaid, serves about 9 million children and 370,000 pregnant women each year. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents in the country, at 16.6 percent, double the national average, according to a U.S. Census Bureau report released in September.

The uncertainty over CHIP has left advocates, state officials and others calling on Texans to reach out to representatives in Washington to push for a resolution.

“It is imperative that you call your U.S. House representatives and senators in Washington, D.C., and urge them to fund this important program so that millions of children across America can receive the health care coverage they need,” said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, in an emailed newsletter sent Friday.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, is among the members of Congress fighting to extend CHIP. Jackson Lee, who chairs the Congressional Children’s Caucus, has been outspoken on Republican attempts to cut health care and insurance coverage, saying GOP health policy is “a prescription for misery and spells disaster for hardworking families struggling to make ends meet in the face of spiraling health care costs.”

If the state doesn’t get additional funding soon, it will have to begin shutting down the program, officials said. State law requires termination notices go out to parents a month before they lose coverage; those letters would likely go out days before Christmas.

Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston, said many children on CHIP have chronic diseases and rely on regular, monthly appointments.

“That’ll put a lot of stress on families who don’t know if they are going to be able to continue to get that kind of care,” she said.

Unlike other states, Texas doesn’t currently have any plans to fund the program. If the state runs out of money, it will send all CHIP recipients to the federal government’s healthcare marketplace.

In early November, the U.S. House passed a bill to fund CHIP, but it would have required cuts to other programs, such as Medicaid. It passed without any Democratic support.

“The notion that we have to cut important programs and take insurance away from one group to give to another is a false choice,” said Rep. Gene Green, D-Houston, in a statement earlier this month.

Adriana Kohler, the senior health policy associate at Texans Care for Children, said it’s important for states to stress the importance of renewing CHIP funding. She and others fear that there will be a lapse in health care coverage and increased costs if families are moved to the healthcare marketplace to buy insurance.

“We would like to see state leaders communicate more clearly to Congress that they need to act quickly,” she said.

Troisi also wants to see CHIP renewed quickly, and hopes funding is provided for at least five years so that families don’t have to constantly worry about their coverage.

“Unfortunately, children are pawns in this political game,” she said.

Matos, Alejandra. “State asks for $90 million to keep CHIP alive through February.” Houston Chronicle, 2 Dec. 2017, www.chron.com/news/politics/texas/article/State-asks-for-90-million-to-keep-CHIP-alive-12398556.php.